Focal Point: Shabazz NapierPosted by mlemaire on November 16th, 2011
Junior co-captain Alex Oriakhi may be Connecticut’s elder statesman, sophomore Jeremy Lamb may be the team’s best player, and freshman center Andre Drummond may be the team’s best NBA prospect, but even coach Jim Calhoun knows that sophomore point guard Shabazz Napier will be the key to the Huskies’ success this season. Calhoun admitted as much to CBS Sports’ Jeff Goodman more than a week ago, but most Huskies’ fans didn’t even need Calhoun’s affirmation to understand just how vital Napier will be to the team’s chances at repeating.
A Massachusetts native, Napier was rated the No. 25 point guard in the class of 2010 and became an instant contributor for Jim Calhoun’s squad. Of course, despite playing 23 minutes and averaging nearly eight points per game, those contributions were merely an afterthought thanks to the performance of star guard Kemba Walker. Napier spent most of the regular season playing in Walker’s rather large shadow, spelling him when he was tired and playing lockdown perimeter defense on opponents. But as the season progressed, Calhoun needed Napier’s steady hand and perimeter defense on the floor in crunch time, and his season peaked in the Final Four when he hit a pair of game-clinching free throws in the team’s 56-55 victory against Kentucky.
But Walker isn’t around anymore, and Napier’s expected backup, heralded freshman Ryan Boatright, isn’t eligible to play while the NCAA sorts out some extra benefits he may have received. This lack of depth means the pressure is on Napier to continue to play lockdown defense, run the team’s more balanced offensive attack, and do it all without needing much rest. The good news for Napier is that the Huskies don’t need him to replace Walker. It is extremely unlikely anyone would be able to do that anyway. They just need him to make smart decisions, shoot the basketball, and efficiently distribute it to the team’s litany of other offensive weapons. It’s why Jim Calhoun named him one of the team’s co-captains, because the Huskies are young and they need leadership; and what better place to look for leadership than the starting point guard and floor general.
And if the team’s first two games are any indication, Napier is ready to accept the challenge, even though it will probably still come with more growing pains. In the team’s first game, Napier was simply too much for the lowly Columbia Lions, scoring 21 points on 7-12 shooting while dishing out eight assists and grabbing six rebounds. In Monday’s win over Wagner, Napier led the team in scoring with 21 points on 6-10 shooting, but he also had six turnovers and just one assist, evidence that no matter how talented he might be, he still has some wrinkles in his game that need ironing.
The question will be whether the sophomore’s body will be able to withstand the duress it is likely to go through over the course of the season. Eventually Boatright will be able to play and that should relieve some of the burden from Napier’s shoulders, but the 6’1″, 170-pounder has been doing yeoman’s work thus far, playing 36 and 35 minutes in the first two games, respectively. That might seem easy during the early part of the season when the competition is weak, but as the season goes on, and he starts attacking the rim against some of the conference’s more physical teams, his body will be put to the test.
He may have spent his senior season of high school overshadowed by the likes of Josh Selby and Kyrie Irving, and he may have spent his rookie season in college overshadowed by one of the country’s brightest stars, but being underestimated is exactly what the unassuming sophomore co-captain wants. Make no mistake about it, Napier isn’t going to sneak up on anyone in the Big East, but Connecticut doesn’t necessarily want that. They need a leader and leaders flourish under pressure – which is exactly where Napier finds himself as this season gets under way.